The Transcontinental Railroad

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Although only thinning herds of buffalo remained near the Union Pacific right-of-way after train travel began, the iron horses of the Kansas Pacific (which ran less than two hundred miles to the south and connected with the Union Pacific at Cheyenne) occasionally were surrounded by buffalo and had to slow down or wait until the herd passed. One traveler on the Kansas Pacific told of seeing a herd that extended as far as the eye could reach. “With heads down and tails up they galloped towards the track making extraordinary exertions to get across ahead of the locomotive. In trying this strategic feat one specimen found himself forcibly lifted into the air and thrown into the ditch, where he lay upon his back, his cloven feet nourishing madly.”

In its early days, before connections were scheduled with other railroads, the Kansas Pacific engineers willingly stopped trains to permit the passengers to leave the cars and shoot at passing buffalo. “Everybody runs out and commences shooting,” lawyer John Putnam of Topeka wrote a friend in 1868. “We failed to bag a buffalo. I did not shoot, having ill defined ideas as to hunting rifles, which end you put the load in and which end you let it out at … But I rushed out with the rest—yelled promiscuously—‘Buffalo!—Stop the train’—‘let me out’’‘there they are!—Whoop-pey’—‘Give ‘em thunder’—‘no go’—‘Come back’—‘drive on’— So you see I helped a good deal.”

The buffalo and other animals entertained the travelers against a constantly changing background of scenery which grew more and more fascinating as they left the plains behind. The first glimpse of the snowy range of the Rocky Mountains always sent a wave of excitement through the passenger cars. “My boyish dreams were realized,” one man recorded. “For hours, at the school desk, have I pondered over the map and wandered, in imagination, with Lewis and Clark, the hunters and trappers and early emigrants, away off to these Rocky Mountains, about which such a mystery seemed to hang,—dreaming, wishing and hoping against hope, that my eyes might, some day, behold their snow-crowned heights. And here lay the first great range in the pureness of white; distant, to be sure, but there it lay, enshrined in beauty.”

Wyoming was filled with wonders for these journeyers from the East, but when the iron horse brought them through tunnels into Utah’s Echo and Weber canyons, they were at a loss for superlatives to describe the towering castlelike rocks. “Grand beyond description … castles in the air … fantastic shapes and profiles … the scene is as fearful as it is sublime.” Shortly after entering the Narrows of Weber Canyon, virtually everyone made note of the Thousand-mile Tree, a single green pine in a desolation of rock and sage, marking the distance from Omaha. European travelers compared Weber Canyon to gateways to the Alps. Castle Rock, Hanging Rock, Pulpit Rock, Devil’s Gate, Devil’s Slide—all entered the notebooks of scribbling passengers who seemed to disagree as to whether they were creations of God or Satan.

Along the way were occasional reminders of pioneers of a previous day—the bones of long-dead oxen and horses beside the deep-rutted trails where covered wagons had crawled, a solitary grave marker, a broken wheel, a piece of discarded furniture. “Inch by inch, the teams toiled to gain a higher foothold,” said one appreciative train traveler, “inch by inch they climbed down the rugged passes; now in luxurious coaches, with horses of iron, with a skilled engineer for a driver we are carried along in comfort.”

When there were no animals or scenery to entertain or awe, there was always the ever-changing weather of the West. The train on which Harvey Rice was journeying to California in 1869 ran through a typically violent Great Plains thunderstorm. “The heavens became, suddenly, as black as starless midnight. The lightning flashed in every direction, and electric balls of fire rolled over the plains. It seemed as if the artillery of heaven had made the valley a target and that we were doomed to instant destruction. But happily our fears were soon dissipated. The storm was succeeded by a brilliant rainbow.”

Heavy rains were likely to flood the tracks, and in the early years before roadbeds were well ballasted the ties sank into the mud. One traveler was startled to see the car behind him churning up such a foam of mud that it resembled a boat rushing along on water. It was not unusual for hailstorms to break car windows, and tornadoes could lift a train off the track. One of the legends of the Kansas Pacific concerns a tornadic waterspout that dropped out of a massive thunderstorm, washed out six thousand feet of track, and swallowed up a freight train. “Although great efforts were made to find it,” said Charles B. George, a veteran railroad man, “not a trace of it has ever been discovered.”